Struggling to swallow? Learn about the causes and treatments for this common ailment.
Medically reviewed by Dr Juliet McGrattan (MBChB) and based on a text by Dr Hanne Korsholm
Asore throat can be a real pain in the neck, literally, but is very common and usually nothing to worry about. Sore throats are typically caused by viruses such as a cold or flu and should clear up in a few days.
Read our expert advice on sore throat symptoms, causes and treatment tips:
What is a sore throat?
A sore throat is characterised by pain or irritation of the throat that often feels worse when you swallow. Sore throats are common, especially during the winter months when infections spread faster because we spend more time indoors in centrally heated rooms with the windows closed. Sore throat symptoms typically include the following:
- Pain in the throat and difficulty swallowing.
- Dry, scratchy throat.
- A red throat.
- Swollen tonsils.
- A high temperature.
- Swollen glands in your neck.
- Bad breath.
What causes a sore throat?
90 per cent of sore throats are caused by viral infections such as the common cold and 10 per cent are caused by a bacterial infection.
Viral throat infection
- The sore throat virus can come from a variety of sources, including the common coldvirus, influenza and the Epstein-Barr virus – the cause of glandular fever.
- Viral infections originate from airborne droplets from coughing and sneezing and from not washing hands.
- GPs do not usually prescribe antibiotics for viral throat infections because they won’t relieve your symptoms or speed up your recovery.
- Vital throat infections usually clear up within a week.
Bacterial throat infection
- Among the bacteria that cause sore throats, the group A streptococcus is the most common.
- Symptoms related to a bacterial throat infection include a high fever, pus visible on the tonsils and enlarged and tender lymph nodes in the neck.
- The incubation period between picking up the infection until the disease breaks out, is up to four days.
- Antibiotics may be prescribed if your GP thinks you could have a bacterial throat infection.
- In a small minority of patients, a sore throat caused by bacteria is treated with penicillin, or erythromycin (eg Erythroped) in cases of penicillin allergy.
- The doctor usually makes the diagnosis from your symptoms, but occasionally a swab or a blood sample are required to identify the cause.
How to treat a sore throat
Antibiotics are not usually prescribed for sore throats as they are unlikely to work unless there is a bacterial infection present. However, symptoms of a sore throat such as pain, dryness and difficulty swallowing can be treated with over-the-counter medication that you can get from your local pharmacist.
In the majority of cases, a sore throat is caused by a viral infection, and can be treated at home with paracetamol or ibuprofen to relieve the pain and bring your temperature down. Gargling with soluble aspirin (300mg) may also be effective for inflamed sore throats.
- Lozenges and pastilles
Lozenges and pastilles containing lemon and honey may help to lubricate and soothe the throat. Try Jakemans Honey & Lemon Menthol sweets to soothe a dry sore throat.
- Throat sprays
A throat spray containing a local anaesthetic such as benzocaine may help if you are having difficulty swallowing, as it is targeted to the back of the throat and can numb the pain quickly.
The following self-help tips can also help soothe the pain of a sore throat:
✔️ Drink plenty of fluids.
✔️ Eat soft food.
✔️ Gargle warm salty water.
✔️ Get plenty of rest.
When should you visit a doctor?
You should visit your GP if you have the following symptoms:
- You sore throat persists for more than a week.
- Your sore throat is severe and you have a marked difficulty in swallowing.
- You also have a high fever.
- You also have a rash.
- You have a weakened immune system, because of an illness such as HIV or chemotherapy.
When should you worry about a sore throat?
Usually a sore throat causes no trouble and only lasts about a week, but the following complications may arise:
- A secondary infection may occur in the middle ear, sinuses or chest.
- If it is a streptococcus infection, there may be a rash (scarlet fever).
- An uncommon complication is a throat abscess usually only on one side.
- In very rare cases, diseases like rheumatic fever or a particular kidney disease(glomerulonephritis) may occur.